Understanding the History of Juneteenth and Its Significance Today

To gain a better understanding of the history of Juneteenth and its significance today, discover why this federal holiday is celebrated as America’s second day of independence.

As all Americans know, the 4th of July is celebrated yearly to mark America’s independence from Britain in 1776. However, true independence was not given to everyone – and the horrific institution of slavery was allowed to continue for decades to come. 

The true nature and extent of American slavery can be hard for many students to fathom, so consider this: historic US Census reports show that in the late 1700s, nearly 700,000 people were enslaved. By 1850, this number had increased to over 3.2 million people, with over 92% of those individuals being African American.

To really understand the widespread nature of slavery, consider that in 1850 the US population consisted of just over 23 million people. With the US Census reporting 3,204,313 slaves, this accounts to nearly 14% of the entire population without freedom. As we say to students, really let that sink in. Imagine that for every 7 people, 1 of them would be enslaved. 

Throughout the course of American slavery between the 1500s and 1865, an estimated 10 million men, women, and children of African descent were enslaved.

Abraham Lincoln is one of America’s most beloved presidents for many reasons, but one accomplishment, in particular, is most well-known by students: his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Many people believe that the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery outright, but this unfortunately isn’t the whole story.

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1963 in the midst of the American Civil War. Of course, to the people enslaved in the seceded Confederate states, this order was disregarded. For many African Americans, true freedom was only achieved upon escaping to the northern states or fleeing into Union lines. In fact, many black soldiers, including escaped slaves, fought for the Union during the Civil War.

Juneteenth: A true end to slavery

While Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal, true freedom for slaves would not come for another two and a half years. A quick timeline is as follows: Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9th, 1865 – effectively ending the Civil War in Virginia. However, the institution of slavery would not be dismantled immediately, with some states still resisting change months later.

Texas was one of these states, having been largely unaffected by the bulk of the Civil War’s brutality. Texas experienced little fighting or Union presence throughout the war. As a result, many enslavers from bordering states had moved to Texas, viewing it as a “safe haven” for slavery to continue onwards. 

Juneteenth marks the day over 2,000 Federal soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to “officially” announce (and enforce) the news. General Gordon Granger read the order informing all Texans that, in accordance with United States law, slaves were free. This occurred on June 19th, 1865 – or as we celebrate it today, Juneteenth.

As an example of America’s resilience, the holiday itself originates from Texas. In 1979, Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. Soon after, many other states began to follow. In 2021, President Joe Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday – the first new national holiday since President Ronald Reagan named Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a holiday in 1983.

Want to inspire your student to learn about the past? Check out 5 Great Movies that Bring History to Life.